CClimate change affects everyone, but especially children. Their small bodies — and the fact that they grow so quickly, starting from the time they’re in the womb — make them more vulnerable to toxins, pollution, and other impacts of climate change. Children are also more vulnerable to the damage of climate change than adults over the course of their lives.
A new scientific review article published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows how dangerous climate-related threats are to children’s health. Researchers analyzed data on the specific effects of a rapidly warming planet and found that climate change, driven in large part by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, is damaging the mental and physical health of children from womb to infancy – with potentially lifelong effects. These dangers threaten many aspects of children’s health, from the development of their lungs to their intellectual abilities to their mental health. Socially and economically disadvantaged children are particularly affected, but all children are at risk. “It’s not just polar bears on melting icebergs,” says study co-author Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. “Children’s health is now being directly harmed – and certainly their future is at significant risk.”
Policies that shift countries away from fossil fuels toward renewable, more efficient energy sources are likely to improve children’s health, say the study’s authors. Healthcare professionals should also recognize and educate themselves on the health risks of climate change to better serve their young patients. “We know how to do it; we know alternatives and they work in different countries,” says Perera. “We just need to accelerate the process … and implement the solutions that we know work.”
Here are three major threats stemming from climate change that are threatening all children around the world, according to new research.
Air pollution affects children’s health in many ways. Through exposure to polluted air, children breathe particulate matter produced when cars, factories, and other sources burn fossil fuels. Air pollution in the fetus during a mother’s pregnancy has also been linked to low birth weight, premature birth and stillbirth; Scientists suspect this could be because air pollution can lead to inflammation, making it harder for food to reach the fetus, says Dr. Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (which was not involved in the new study). “Particulate matter pollution is a source of infant death, including stillbirth and death in infancy,” says Bernstein. Air pollution can also affect children’s lung growth and function, putting them at higher risk of respiratory infections, bronchitis and asthma.
Other research suggests that air pollution can affect the psyche of children while they are still in the womb. An expectant mother’s exposure to air pollution particles “can be directly toxic to her fetus’ developing brain,” says Perera. “They can cross the placenta.” A research paper published in Cognitive and behavioral neurology in 2020 includes numerous studies linking exposure to air pollution to lower cognitive function in children. Other research has found links between exposure to pollution and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Pollutants also contribute to climate change – which in turn increases air pollution by fueling many of the conditions that cause wildfires, including heat and drought. And higher temperatures are thought to contribute to the development of ozone, a pollutant that damages the lungs and worsens conditions like asthma.
Less nutritious food
Climate change is eroding one of the core building blocks for growing children: healthy eating. Extreme weather events that destroy food crops, including droughts, floods and higher temperatures, are becoming more frequent. These can make food more expensive and scarce. Even when children have enough to eat, they may still not have enough nutrients; Recent research shows that high levels of carbon dioxide can make foods less nutritious.
Getting enough calories and essential nutrients is key to ensuring children grow up healthy. When children are malnourished, “their brains don’t develop normally,” says Bernstein. “It affects every organ.”
Global hunger is already widespread and experts predict it will only get worse. In 2021, about 193 million people were acutely food insecure – what the United Nations defines as a nutritional deficiency that threatens life or livelihood – and about 26 million children were suffering from wasting, a condition in which children do not weigh enough for their height, according to the World Food Program.
Even more trauma
A world changed by climate change is more dangerous for children. Famines, droughts and extreme weather events are becoming more common as a result of climate change, as are the violent interpersonal conflicts such disasters bring about; For example, drought caused by climate change is believed to have contributed to the outbreak of the 2011 war in Syria. On a hotter planet, children are more likely to be subject to trauma, including displacement; According to UNICEF, around 2.4 million children worldwide were displaced by natural disasters in 2021 alone.
It is believed that experiencing severe trauma as a child increases the risk of both mental illnesses, such as depression, and physical illnesses, such as cancer, asthma, and stroke. Stress in expectant mothers can also affect the cognitive development of their fetus.
“When your home burns down or is flooded by a hurricane, when you become impoverished because your family’s livelihood has been destroyed by a drought—these are negative childhood events,” says Bernstein, “and they can accumulate over a lifetime and cause damage. ”
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